In certain academic circles, nuance, rigor, and reasonable disagreement in scholarly discourse surrounding India and Hinduism is supplanted with polemics, tendentiousness, and bad faith. We, as a group of academics, write with specific concern about the exacerbation of this trend through the upcoming Dismantling Global Hindutva (DGH) conference, which has claimed the apparent sponsorship of over forty academic institutions.
The conference, to be held virtually between 10-12 September, aims to “address the threat and power of Hindutva” by relying on perspectives from scholars, journalists, and activists. However, these perspectives — as expressed through the conference’s promotional materials — pose an inherent threat to the well-being of the Hindu community, and to academic freedom itself. As scholars, we embrace academic freedom — the right of scholars to conduct inquiry and engage in constructive debate and disagreement without threat or intimidation; yet, this upcoming conference imperils our ability to freely do so in good faith and thus constitutes the very antithesis of this ideal.
DGH has promulgated the “Hindutva Harassment Field Manual” (HHFM) as an official resource for the conference. Three basic claims made by this document therefore underline the foundational premise of DGH and its participants.
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- Hinduphobia does not exist
The document claims that Hinduphobia was coined recently by the Hindu Right and that it “relies on flawed analogies with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.” It continues, “individual cases of discrimination, no matter how painful, do not amount to Hinduphobia since Hinduphobia rests on the false notion that Hindus have faced systematic oppression throughout history and in present times.” The note concludes, “Scholars of South Asia overall consider the term ‘Hinduphobia’ problematic.”
Many of us, as scholars of or belonging to South Asia, refuse to be spoken for.
Earlier this year, academics — including signatories to this letter — created a working definition of Hinduphobia, which has also been recognised by the Student Assembly of at least one DGH-sponsoring institution. This definition is specific to Hindu experiences across time and geography.
As defined, the word ‘Hinduphobia’ has been used in media and politics since the nineteenth century. To claim it was coined by “the Hindu Right” is an easily disproved, prejudicial falsity. Many DGH scholars are aware and have even publicly acknowledged that a free, public conference at Rutgers University was held to examine Hinduphobia earlier this year. Yet, they refuse to engage with the definition, even as an intellectual exercise, perfunctorily dismissing the possibility that Hinduphobia exists.
A nascent literature that examines Hinduphobia within the United States and United Kingdom already exists, including within religious studies. A survey of British Indians conducted by The 1928 Institute in collaboration with Oxford University found that “80% of respondents experienced prejudice as a result of their Indian identity,” with “Hinduphobia… the predominant type of prejudice reported.” Altman’s Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893 (Oxford University Press, 2017) incisively demonstrates the way in which representations of “Hindoo heathenism” were used as a foil to the “supremacy of white Protestant American identity.” Reflecting on this and other scholarship, to suggest offhand, as DGH does, that anti-Hindu bias is not engrained systemically into the consciousness of the Anglosphere is fundamentally anti-intellectual and ahistorical.
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2. There is no historical linkage between anti-Hindu bias and large-scale anti-Hindu violence
The conclusion that Hinduphobia does not exist rests on a pernicious and violent assertion — that there is no evidence that “Hindus have faced systematic oppression throughout history and in present times… The anti-Semitic ideology of Nazism led to the Holocaust. Islamophobic foreign policies over time resulted in the killing of civilians in the Middle East as well as the recent anti-Muslim ban of the Trump administration. Anti-Hindu bias, on the other hand, cannot be easily linked to casualties on such horrific scales.”
Such an assertion is disturbing, and dangerous when put forth by those with academic credentials. As this scholarly definition notes, “outright denying or accusing Hindus or any people of inventing or exaggerating the persecution of Hindus, including genocide,” constitutes Hinduphobia. It is not difficult to connect anti-Hindu bias with anti-Hindu violence on a mass scale; such incidents include:
- The Bengali Hindu genocide of 1971, whose fiftieth anniversary is currently being observed, and which was recognized by the US Congress earlier this year.
- The ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Hindus, especially and most recently in 1989-1990.
- The ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, which continues today.
- The connection between anti-Hindu bias and justifications for oppressive British colonisation, including the Bengal Famine and reprisals after the Rebellion of 1857, as astutely made by Sharma’s The Ruler’s Gaze (HarperCollins, 2017) and others.
Erasure of violence and genocide against any community is of grave concern. Denying the existence and the anti-Hindu animus that lies at the origin of these events of massive historical, political, and economic import is unscholarly, Hinduphobic, and gaslights victims of anti-Hindu persecution and the global Hindu community.
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3. Those who disagree with claims 1 and 2 above are complicit in “Hindutva atrocities.”
The most distressing claim made by the DGH scholars is that reports of Hinduphobia and anti-Hindu violence “act as a smokescreen for casteism and anti-Muslim prejudice.” The implication is that those who disagree are complicit in the atrocities they attribute to Hindutva. This is an ad hominem attack formulated to stifle debate and disagreement, even from fellow academics. As Adluri and Bagchee argue in their eponymous monograph, “Crying Hindutva to discipline and silence non-conforming scholars is hardly new. What is more disturbing is that questioning Indologists’ criteria, arguments, and application of methods… now suffices to be accused of… espousing Hindutva causes. No evidence for such a serious accusation is required.” The definition of Hinduphobia further inveighs, “accusing those who organize around or speak about Hinduphobia (including the persecution of Hindus) of being agents or pawns of violent, oppressive political agendas” is itself a form of Hinduphobia.
By arguing that those who disagree with their central arguments about “global Hindutva” are members of “the Hindu Right,” the DGH scholars seek to weaponise “academic freedom” and the power asymmetry that exists between themselves and other scholars within the academy to insulate themselves from reasoned critique. This is absurdist logic. In civilised discourse, name-calling and labeling are highly problematic. Notwithstanding any degree of sanctimony on the subject, we worry that those who seek carte blanche to intimidate opposing voices are not in search of truth or “academic freedom,” but of power.
As scholars, we recognise that critique — no matter how reasonable — of the assumptions underlying an event with such apparent broad-based institutional support may carry some risk for our own career prospects. It is also highly unusual for academics to challenge other scholars in such direct language. Yet, the language utilised by DGH is even more extraordinary; quite frankly, language that denies the historical persecution of a religious minority and brooks no dissent, has no place in scholarly debate. Of equal concern is that these scholars amplify this message in their capacity as public intellectuals. Recently, several SASAC members (the scholar collective behind the HHFM) were interviewed on WNYC, where this language was replicated to the general public.
Because we operate in the academic space, we have a responsibility to ensure that the study of South Asia and Hinduism remains ethical, inclusive, and methodologically rigorous. Accordingly, we identify a clear moral duty to speak publicly in this case. We find that DGH represents none of these ideals and therefore flag in no uncertain terms our concerns about the ethos of this conference.
Parth Parihar, Post-doctoral fellow, Wallis Institute for Political Economy – University of Rochester
Indumathi Viswanathan, Ed.D., Co-Director, Understanding Hinduphobia
Sumita Ambasta, Ed.D. Candidate, Teacher’s College – Columbia University
Gautam Sen, Lecturer (Retired), International Political Economy – London School of Economics and Political Science
Subhash Kak, Regents Professor, Department of Computer Science – Oklahoma State University
Nalini N. Rao, Associate Professor, World Art – Soka University of America
Ramesh Rao, Professor, Communication Studies – Columbus State University
Lavanya Vemsani, Professor, History and Religious Studies – Shawnee State University
Deepak Shimkhada, Adjunct Professor, Religious Studies – Chaffey College
Views are personal.
The name of one of the authors has been dropped form this updated version of the article.